Asheville – “Welcome to the Asheville Ramada Southeast at River Ridge, your smart choice of Asheville NC hotels … Our Asheville hotel is an attraction in its own right with a beautiful 7-acre campus, mountain views and onsite recreational activities. Try out our seasonal outdoor pool, enjoy the free breakfast, free Wi-Fi and guest laundry too. In-room amenities include 32-inch flat-screen televisions and refrigerators. Balcony suites with views are available…. We’re a luxurious property with a world of comfort just waiting for you.”
That’s how the property was described on ramadariverridge.com. It has since been used by the City of Asheville as temporary housing for people who have found themselves homeless during the COVID shutdown. At their August 24 meeting, city council was expected to authorize the purchase of the property – by the city –to convert it into a no-barrier shelter. The sobriety requirements most shelters enforce are one example of a barrier. Not only does it help all inside feel safe, it also gives those suffering from addiction an opportunity to show themselves they can control their addictions, if only temporarily, for the sake of the broader community. Concerns about the tone of the neighborhood, however, continue to push a decision on the Ramada project into the future.
Confronting County Commissioners
Trying another tack, neighbors took their complaints to the county commissioners to ask that they deny support for the project. About 20 people took up the bulk of the hour with reasons why. Nobody wished the criminals ill. Instead, they wanted to help but believed this was a misguided approach that would prove more detrimental than therapeutical. For example, Maggie Charleton said the no-barrier model was not fair to its residents; “I hope they learn how to be good neighbors, and they’re not learning that now.” Don Yelton borrowed from the conventional wisdom that teaches no amount of physical or financial ruin (in this case depletion of federal resources) can change an addict. Speaking nondenominationally, he said, it takes, “an emotional, heart experience.”
Judith Kaufman spoke of feces, trash in parking areas, cops frequenting the neighborhood to make arrests, people overdosing, couples at the approach of the neighborhood engaging unabashedly in licentious acts in broad daylight, and persons interfering with children’s play. She said it was of no use to call the police. Others complained about drug dealing; syringes on the stairway and in the parking lot; people screaming for no reason; stolen mail, bikes, etc.; people shooting up in plain view; and pornographic litter. More alarming were the headlines of two murders and a drug bust associated with Ramada clientele. Property owners and managers spoke of having to invest in private security, night lighting, cameras, and fences.
Barber Melton explained there were no police to call. Later, Yelton and Chris Hancock established the Asheville Police Department, with 227 positions, had 102 vacancies. Melton said it would take years to restore staffing at the department. Furthermore, there was no government-provided mental health counseling in the state anymore, and private counselors were “up to their eyeballs in patients.” There was also the question of how the city was going to pay for the shelter. They planned on using COVID relief funds, but Melton said the only way federal support would be sustained would be through increased taxes, and she was already “up to my eyeballs in taxes.”
Chris Nevant, who co-owns the McDonald’s with his wife, said folks from the Ramada would go car-to-car and knock on the windows of cars in the drive-thru and ask for money. He had been personally threatened when he asked them to leave. Vagrants are lying on the sidewalk when his employees report for work in the wee morning hours. He has to clean heroin needles from the lot. The store has had multiple broken windows, and it keeps its lobby closed, not because of COVID, but because his employees are afraid to open the doors. The homeless people, he said, “are all drugged out of their mind and don’t even know where they are.” Nevant said an important part of the McDonald’s brand is providing a safe and protected workplace for employees. He asked who was looking out for the 70 people who work at his store.
Tony Morris of Sun Soo Martial Arts said he works with 350 kids, promoting values and strength of character. The current ambiance at the shopping center, however, runs counter to all he’s trying to teach the kids. It’s scary and unsafe. He’s dealt with homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk, leaving excrement at the front and back doors, coming inside and threatening staff, and interrupting services to locate a toilet. Perhaps worst of all, they drop used needles in the training field, forcing staff to perform “organized criss-cross” searches of the lawn before activities.
Denise Knapp of Merle Norman Cosmetics has been at River Ridge for over 30 years. She corroborated what the others had said and added nobody had mentioned “the amount of theft.” She said Dollar General is closed most of the time because of it. “You go in there and the shelves are empty.” Like many, she raised alarms about the no-barrier shelter being within a mile of Oakley Elementary and the Oakley Library. Charleton had asked city staff if no barriers meant the shelter would accept sexual offenders, and she was told they did not know. So, Knapp asked, “Do you want your kid approached by a pedophile with his …?”